Christmas in June? That, at least, is certainly how fans of the New York Knicks feel as they wake up Wednesday morning and find on their phones the news, coming courtesy of ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne, that team president Phil Jackson will be stepping down from his post. That decision, according to Shelburne, came late Tuesday night following a series of conversations between Jackson and Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan centered on the future of the organization.
There’s no doubting the Knicks are better off with general manager Steve Mills, who Shelburne reported will run the show during free agency, and Jackson far away from the franchise. Removing Jackson from the picture might be the best decision Dolan has made in his nearly two decades as Knicks owner.
Jackson spent his three-plus seasons as team president alienating players, both in his own locker room and around the league. From his obsession with the triangle offense to taking shots at LeBron James, from his handling of the Carmelo Anthony mess to the PR war he waged against New York City’s beloved unicorn Kristaps Porzingis, Jackson has spent the past three seasons proving over and again he was not qualified or equipped to run a 21st-century NBA team.
The Knicks going 80-166 in his three years at the helm, losing 50 or more games in each of those seasons and yet still appearing years away from contention, solidified his fate. More damaging to Jackson, though, will be the way his actions and comments over his three-plus years with the Knicks damages his once golden legacy. Has the world ever before seen a man’s reputation flip from genius to bumbling fool so quickly?
The Knicks no longer have to deal with Jackson’s not-so-cryptic tweets, his attempts to undercut a head coach, players grumbling about his archaic offensive system or his poorly executed mind games. They’re a better franchise Wednesday than they were Tuesday.
Porzingis’ New York future, it would seem, is now secure. Given the timing, it’s fair to wonder if the rift between Porzingis and Jackson at least played a part in Dolan pushing Jackson out (which is no doubt what Porzingis was aiming for when he skipped his end-of-season exit meeting).
That this is all happening before free agency is helpful; agents and players around the league have had no qualms expressing how unappealing the prospect of playing for Jackson’s Knicks had become. Perhaps this changes that. It’s possible that Carmelo Anthony, no longer engaged in a stare-down with Jackson, becomes more open to waiving his no trade clause, giving the Knicks more cap space.
But to assume that the ousting of Jackson will solve all the problems that haunt MSG is naïve.
It was just last week Dolan told SB Nation he had completely sequestered himself from the team’s basketball operations. "It tells you how uninvolved I am with the basketball team," Dolan said.
Yet just five days later, Dolan is very involved. But the timing remains troubling: Jackson just last week selected Frank Ntilikina No. 8 overall in the 2017 NBA draft because he fits the triangle. Perhaps, if not for Jackson, the Knicks would have instead gone with Dennis Smith Jr. or Malik Monk, point guards better suited for the modern game.
Smith, in particular, was viewed by many as a better prospect than Ntilikina but a poor choice for a triangle team because of his preference to play pick-and-roll basketball. A source close to Smith told Bleacher Report that Smith, who was drafted No. 9 by the Dallas Mavericks, would likely be a Knick if Jackson had been let go prior to the draft.
Which is all to say that while the decision to get rid of Jackson may be sound, the process certainly was not.
And where does this leave the organization? Maybe Dolan tosses money at now-former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin. Maybe he tries to pry respected personnel men like R.C. Buford of the San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Sam Presti or Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri away from their current employers.
Whatever he does, though, it seems clear Dolan is done taking a backseat. You can’t help but wonder whether part of him enjoys how muddy things got by the end of Jackson’s reign. For the past year, as fans and media members began clamoring for him to help, Dolan seemed to relish being given the chance to point out that he was finally acquiescing to fan requests that he keep himself from basketball decisions. And yet look, he would say, things have only gotten worse.
"I recognized some three-plus years ago that this—running a basketball operation—this is not my skill set," Dolan told ESPN New York’s Michael Kay Show following the Charles Oakley saga, adding: "And you know the best thing I could do was find the best guy. A lot of people said, ‘You wont be able to stay away, you’re going to meddle, well I think everybody recognizes now that I have stayed away that I have let Phil absolutely run the franchise and that I intend to do that for the length of the agreement."
Will Dolan now view the Jackson debacle as proof the Knicks are better off with him heavily involved? If so, not only would Jackson’s mistake-filled tenure have set the Knicks back at least three years, but it could also wind up thrusting Dolan back into picture, an obstacle that history says will be impossible for the franchise to ever overcome.